rusq: Vol. 51 Issue 3: p. 291
Sources: Black America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia
Brent D. Singleton

Brent D. Singleton, Coordinator for Reference Services, California State University, San Bernardino

The editor of this two-volume set adopts a novel approach to a subject well covered by reference publishers. The state-by-state structure allows for the study of African American history from a more local context. The work presents countless facts, events, and personalities forgotten or otherwise drowned out by the broader tides of American history. Readers come away with a better understanding that black America is not a monolithic culture, and much of African American history has played out in far-flung corners of the country.

The illustrated encyclopedia covers all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each state has sections for “Chronology,” “Notable African Americans,” “Cultural Contributions,” and a bibliography. The essay portions are well-written and researched overall, and the chronologies and bibliographies are helpful for historical context and further exploration. The cumulative index is indispensible, and thankfully well constructed, for finding topics dispersed across many states.

The chief weakness of the work is the uneven treatment of the biographies. It is difficult to discern how California only has nine biographies to Oregon and New Mexico's eleven, Idaho's thirteen, and Utah's robust thirty-one, to name a few. As well, there seems to be no criteria to fully explain how notables were selected, or why some have been associated with one state or another or in multiple states in some cases. George Washington Carver has three entries in different states, but President Obama is placed only in Illinois, not Hawaii where he was born and raised. Langston Hughes is placed in Missouri where he was born, but he was raised elsewhere and made his mark in Harlem, as did Malcolm X, who was placed in Nebraska, his state of birth, although raised in Michigan from a small child. Furthermore, there are anomalies such as relatively minor rapper, Nelly, being the only hip hop artist with a biography. It can be argued that in the past two decades, major rap artists and producers such as Dr. Dre, Sean Combs, or Russell Simmons have had more influence over a generation of Americans than all but a few other contemporary African Americans, yet none of them or their peers made the cut. It seems a generation gap has been exposed. The major jazz and R&B musicians of the twentieth century are well represented, but hip hop received very short shrift. All of the above issues may be a function of having so many authors writing the state profiles, however tighter editing should have smoothed over such glaring inconsistencies.

Despite its shortcomings, the work's interesting approach and otherwise informative entries are of value to collections focused on high school or lower division college researchers.



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